Facing Father’s Day without a father

dadI’ve written extensively for my county’s newspaper, The Rockdale Citizen, about the hardship and grief associated with motherloss during the holidays and Mother’s Day (read it about it here and here).  What about the loss of fathers during Father’s Day?

Grief hits us most profoundly when special occasions occur, especially firsts.  This weekend, grief will confront me in a unique way because its my family’s first Father’s Day without Dad.

This thought hit me when I was shopping for Hallmark cards earlier this week.  I had to get three instead of four: two for my brothers-in-law and one for my godfather.

I spotted a card that was from a child to “Pop Pop.” That was my children’s nickname for my father.

I looked at the card for a few minutes, wondering whether I should buy it just to have it and put it in my journal.  I moved on, picked up another card with peanuts on it for one of my in-laws instead: “Happy Father’s Day from a couple of nuts.”

The trip to the card aisle reminded me just how helpless we all feel after the loss of a loved one.

For my family, personally, it is helplessness in the wake of the tragedy we experienced nearly ten months ago when a irate shooter killed three people, Dad included, in a town hall meeting in Ross, Pennsylvania.

As a result of a powerful firearm, we were rendered powerless and were torn asunder, not only from a great father, but a best friend to many.

Since that time, I have faced many firsts, and I have tried to follow the advice that I give parishioners who are in my situation.

We’ve started new traditions that honor my father, and we have grieved the loss of other traditions.

We acknowledge the loss, and we feel our way through our emotions as they come about.  (Daphne Reiley accurately describes grief as a series of waves and undercurrents that ebb and flow each day in A Tapestry of Love.)

We draw encouragement from the Bible.

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is especially helpful: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope…God will bring with him those who have died” (4:13, 14b).

I know we will be reunited in heaven, but the separation from our loved one feels like hell right now.

Prayer is also helpful, but sometimes falls short.  Silence in the presence of God is golden.

Poetry has been the most helpful avenue of healing for me.  I’ve picked up Book of Hours by poet, Kevin Young, a professor at Emory University here in Atlanta.

The book balances poetry about his own father’s death (in an accidental shooting while hunting) with the birth of Young’s first child.  His poetry is a bluesy, meandering stream of consciousness that expresses the on-again, off-again nature of loss:

“Strange how you keep on dying–not once then over and done with…each morning a sabbath of sundering, then hours still arrive I realize nothing can beg you back.”

It’s helplessness in those lines, but also hope.  “I do not want you to be uninformed,” Paul writes, its a timeless lesson echoing in my heart.

But uninformed I am.  As Father’s Day creeps up on us, we will stand in darkness yet again.  It feels like an old record skipping and repeating the same dirge over and over.

My only solace is that the day falls on a Sunday.  My church family will comfort me, as I’m sure church families everywhere will comfort all who those who miss fathers on that special day.

We will celebrate too, because there are plenty of fathers in our midst that make up the difference.

And then there is our Father in heaven.  Even when darkness falls, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds” (Psalm 9:1), because God is good (…all of the time; and all of the time…).

All who suffer loss will face–and contend with–the “firsts”

autumnAnother October is almost over, and I can’t help but to be excited about Halloween coming up in several weeks.  It’s one of my favorite holidays.  There’s something about the fun and fantasy, the candy and candlelight, the storytelling and lure that gets me as giddy as my five-year around this time of year.

I’m giddy, but I’m also saddened because I have a feeling that much of this excitement has to do with my father’s participation in all things Halloween.  As you may recall, my father passed away several months ago; and now I realize that I will be dressing up, a dad myself, to share in this day with my family as he did with us so long ago.

This year, however, I will be unable to tell my dad what the children will be wearing.  I won’t be able to share in his own joy as he shares the day with my nieces and nephews up north.

It hit me several weeks ago: This will be my first Halloween without my father, and it is only the first of many holidays that will unfold the next two months without him.  His birthday is in early November, Thanksgiving shortly thereafter, my mother’s birthday in December, and then Christmas.

All without Dad.  To borrow the words of Nicholas Wolterstorff, who lost his own son in a tragic accident, “The world will be an emptier place” this season.

I now know what it’s like to feel the “firsts” of a person’s first year without a loved one.  Each “first” passes with a sense of routine and joy, but also dread and profound aloneness–there is the first anniversary, birthday, Easter…the first year.

I also know that with the death of a loved one, certain traditions die as well.  Several months ago, when I visited family in New York, we lamented that Daddy won’t be dressing up in a Santa Claus outfit only to give everyone lousy dollar-store trinkets from his worn, pillow-case “santa bag.”

I know what it means when the author of Ecclesiastes wrote that there is a season for everything (3:1): Although some traditions may die, others emerge in their place.

Dad won’t be present for Christmas, and we will cry that we were robbed of the opportunity to call him “cheap” for another year because of those lousy gifts (“Vinny, seriously? A roll of toilet paper?”).  Yet, plans have been made for my brother-in-law to take his place as Santa Claus while my sister provides the dollar trinkets for all to enjoy.

I may not call Dad on Halloween to tell him of the new ghost stories I’ve made up for the kids this year, but I will likely rent a black-and-white Vincent Price movie to watch after the kids go to bed.  That’s the type of movie Dad and I used to watch when I was a boy.

The “firsts” bring with them the ebb and flow of such seasons: “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).  We just have to go through it, walk through that valley of the shadow of death, feel our feelings, cry, laugh, talk and share, and simply find our way in–and out–of those holidays together.

I won’t be the only one around these parts to go through the “firsts” this year, so the prayer of Ecclesiastes will not be mine to pray alone.  For that, I am grateful, for in the midst of every season, we tread–as All Saints Day will soon remind us–in so great a cloud of witnesses.

Promise keeping Dads are modern-day heroes

One of the most formative and significant contributions a father can make in the life of a child is that of a kept promise.

Christians are quick to look elsewhere when finding something to blame for society’s moral decay: Promiscuity, homosexuality, humanism, communism, and the like have all been scapegoats for the “families are under attack” paranoia in evangelical circles.

When we consider that Jesus tells us to “consider the log” in our own eyes, however, we need look no further than to a father’s ability or inability to keep his promises to his family.

Call me old fashioned, but I’m one of those fellas who still believes that the integrity of a man is only as good as his word, and that a man’s word is his bond.  Last time I purchased a car, I shook hands with the dealer when I decided to buy the car even though I was going to complete the transaction the next day.  He was skeptical, and I told him that if my handshake wasn’t good enough for him, than neither was my money.

Although the one-time popular movement known as Promise Keepers has waned over the last decade, God still calls us dads to be promise keepers to our children.  Car dealers and neighbors aside, theirs is the trust that we need to consider as most sacred and special.

A life of ministry has pushed my own sense of promise keeping when it comes to my children.  There have been times when I had to choose between a visit to the hospital and a promise made to my son or daughter.  Other times, I missed church functions in order to take one of them to a much-needed appointment.

One of the most crucial ways to communicate to your child that you are a father of integrity is to be present in his or her life.  Usually, we do not have to tell them “I promise”; just the fact that we are a father assumes that we fulfill certain obligations, least of which is to keep our children safe and pay attention to their needs.

In a nation in which one out of every two marriages fail and childbearing outside of the bonds of marriage is becoming trendy, a father has to take special care to make his family a priority even when there is the temptation to give up on his spouse.

In his book “Getting Marriage Right,” Baptist ethicist David Gushee reminds couples that marriage is a sacred trust built upon a covenant of mutual sacrifice.  The covenant is one that should not be taken lightly; and for many children, a father’s covenant with his wife is the first “promise” that models for children the importance of sacrifice, patience, and perseverence.

In one chapter, for instance, Dr. Gushee says that remaining married for the sake of the children is still a valid reason to stay married.  Although this idea may be old-fashioned to some (and Dr. Gushee makes exceptions for divorce in cases related to abuse or adultery), this ethic of “bearing one’s cross” for the sake of children is something that creates a sense of integrity and purpose in a husband’s life.

In order for a father to be a hero to his children, he need not adorn a cape and mask.  He need not jump over buildings, take flight, or purchase a snazzy birthday gift.  A hero only needs to keep his promises and show that sacrifice for the sake of family is the most worthy goal to which every father should strive.